Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers

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From Work with us Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | Nov 20, 2006

The Democrats’ hard-fought conquest of the U.S. House of Representatives offers Canada a mixed bag of potential blessings and threats on issues ranging from managing the land border to agricultural trade. But in practice, the likelihood of gridlock between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate(as Maclean’s went to press on election night, the Senate race was too close to call)and White House means the importance of Capitol Hill will be eclipsed by new faces elsewhere: in statehouses and several key governors’ mansions. Whether the newcomers will turn out to be friends will depend largely on whether Canada does the work of making them so.

In the House, the Democratic takeover brings a new batch of leaders with new personalities and priorities. For example, the House agriculture committee will have a new chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, which increases the possibility of Canada getting side-swiped by protectionist moves as the Democrats work on a new, far-reaching agricultural bill. The farm-raised Peterson has a record of voting against free trade agreements, and he could be susceptible to complaints about the Canadian Wheat Board, or government support for the pork, poultry or milk sectors, says Colin Robertson, who until recently was the head of the advocacy secretariat at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. “We will face the possibility of becoming either collateral damage or the target of a direct effort against us,” says Robertson, now the president of the Historica Foundation, which promotes Canadian history education.

Because many of those industries are based in Quebec, a dispute could put particular pressure on the Harper government, which needs to maintain its support in that province. Peterson will be one for Canadian diplomats to get to know — and they have a topic to break the ice: in 1998, he proposed a constitutional amendment to allow residents of Minnesota’s so-called northwest angle to vote on seceding from the U.S. and joining Manitoba.

The top-of-mind issue for Canadian diplomats will continue to be the border, in particular ensuring smooth implementation of a new requirement that everyone entering the U.S., including returning Americans, have valid passports. The rule takes effect on Jan. 8 for air travellers; for land and sea travel, it’s been postponed to June 2009. Fewer than 24 per cent of Americans hold passports, and Canada’s tourism industry is terrified that families won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for new documents. Businesses are worried about expensive delays at border crossings if proper procedures and infrastructure aren’t put in place with adequate staffing. As a result, Canadian diplomats will soon be fanning out across the Hill to make their case. “We will be making a special effort to get to know the new members of Congress and get them educated quickly about how much Canada matters to them and the importance of the border to prosperity in both countries,” says Canadian Embassy spokesman Bernard Etzinger.

The real potential for action will be outside the Beltway. “Far more important for Canada than congressional elections are elections in the states: Canada relies a lot on governors to advocate on shared concerns and on the border,” says Sands.

The resolution of the dispute over Devils Lake was largely due to a good relationship between Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who voiced concerns about North Dakota’s plan to discharge polluted waters into the Red River, says Robertson. “These governor relationships really matter because the states matter — that is increasingly where the problems come from. And if the governor is our friend, then we are closer to solving them.”

In Michigan, the Vancouver-born Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, managed to keep her seat. Her administration has been a leading proponent of improving the security of American drivers’ licences so they could be used as border-crossing ID. In Massachusetts, where Democrat Patrick Deval replaced Republican Mitt Romney, the change of governorship could breathe new life into a key Canadian relationship: the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers.”It’s one of the oldest hidden-wire relationships, but you’ve got to have the Massachusetts governor for it to work. Romney didn’t show any interest in it, so that relationship was languishing,” says Robertson.

Elsewhere, potential alliances have yet to be explored. “I don’t think there are any people we see as, ‘Oh this is not the right person for Canada’ — but we definitely have to get to know them and get to know them quickly,” says Etzinger. And new governors and state legislators across the country give Canadians new opportunities to build relationships not just to address pressing issues, but as an investment in the future: state-level politicians are often the farm team for the Senate, the White House and the cabinet.